The most spied upon building on Earth

19-11-2019 repubblica.it 10 min #164694

A massive scandal: how Assange, his doctors, lawyers and visitors were all spied on for the U.S.

La Repubblica has had access to the video and audio recordings of the Spanish company, UC Global, which spied on the WikiLeaks founder, his team of journalists and all of us who visited Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy for the last seven years. Video footage and audio recordings reveal an appalling violation of privacy. All the information gathered by UC Global was sent to US intelligence

by STEFANIA MAURIZI  abbonati a

18 novembre 2019

It sounds like a James Bond movie, but it really happened. Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks journalists and every single lawyer, reporter, politician, artist and physician who visited the founder of WikiLeaks at the Ecuadorian embassy over the last seven years was subjected to systematic espionage. Meetings and conversations were recorded and filmed, and all the information was sent to US intelligence. Sometimes the espionage operations were truly off the wall: at one point spies even planned to steal the diaper of a baby brought to visit Assange inside the embassy. The purpose? To gather the baby's feces and perform a DNA test to establish whether the newborn was a secret son of Julian Assange.

Repubblica has had access to some of the videos, audios and photos. Meetings between the founder of WikiLeaks and his lawyers, medical examinations of Julian Assange, diplomatic encounters of the Ecuadorian ambassador Carlos Abad Ortiz, meetings between Assange and journalists. Everything was spied on.

The author of this article found that she was not just filmed, but her phones were screwed open, presumably to obtain the IMEI code that allows uniquely identifying the phone in order to intercept it. Spies also had access to our USB sticks, though at this stage it is not clear if they managed to break the encryption protecting the information stored in the USB flash drives inside our backpacks. These are very serious violations of the confidentiality of journalistic sources, given that our meetings inside the embassy were entirely professional and, as frequent visitors, we were repeatedly registered as "journalists".
The most spied upon building on Earth Everyone could imagine that the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where Julian Assange took refuge, was subject to extraordinary surveillance, but what was once just a reasonable guess became a certainty after judge José de la Mata of Spain's High Court (Audiencia Nacional) opened an investigation against UC Global - a company based in Jerez de la Frontera, Cádiz, in southern Spain - and had the company's offices searched and its owner, David Morales, arrested.

On June 19, 2012, when the founder of WikiLeaks took refuge in the tiny flat which is the diplomatic outpost of Quito in the United Kingdom, the embassy lacked the most basic security measures: it was not even equipped with cameras. That is why the then Ecuadorian government of Rafael Correa, who had granted asylum to Julian Assange, enlisted UC Global, a small security company founded by a former Spanish military man, David Morales, who provided protection for Correa's family.

When Morales started working for Ecuador, he was a small contractor with big ambitions: he hoped to acces the circle of contractors with lucrative businesses in dangerous places around the world. It was precisely the presence of Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy that offered him the chance to develop his business, according to some of his former employees who have become witnesses in the ongoing investigation against him. Witnesses reconstructed how Morales put himself at the service of American intelligence to spy on Julian Assange and his visitors and staff. The Spanish investigation relies on a massive amount of video and audio recordings, UC Global's internal emails and chats. Escalation under Donald Trump After the election of Donald Trump, UC Global's espionage activities registered a true escalation. Inside the embassy, new cameras were installed to gather not just video files, but also to enable recording conversations with built-in microphones which could not be detected "by the naked eye", as UC Global's internal emails reveal. David Morales asked his employees to provide such information as the physical composition of the walls of Assange's room: "brick, masonry, cement", the "embassy's wifi data", and Morales even considered installing microphones that could detect sound through the walls.

Nothing and no one was spared. Even the most inviolable meetings were violated: video and audio footage seen by Repubblica show a half-naked Julian Assange during a medical check up, the Ecuadorian ambassador Carlos Abad Ortiz and his staff during one of their diplomatic meetings, two of Assange's lawyers, Gareth Peirce and Aitor Martinez, entering the women's bathroom for a private conversation with their client.

It was Julian Assange who suggested holding the legal meetings inside the women's toilet due to his suspicion of being under intense surveillance. Lawyers had considered it paranoid on Assange's part, and UC Global had reassured them on this count, but in reality microphones had even been placed inside the women's toilet.

Of course the WikiLeaks past and present staffers were especially targeted. Stella Morris was one of the main targets. The journalist Sarah Harrison, who flew to Hong Kong to help Edward Snowden, was targeted as well. UC Global's boss also asked his employees for updated profiles of Renata Avila, the lawyer and expert on digital rights; of the Croatian philosopher and co-founder of DIEM, Srecko Horvat; of the London-based lawyer Jennifer Robinson, who has been representing Julian Assange since 2010; of the film-makers Juan and José Passarelli; of the Spanish jurist Baltasar Garzon, who heads Julian Assange's legal team. A series of photographs reveals that Garzon was followed. Files also reveal that the freelance journalist and tech expert Andy Müller-Maguhn had his phones targeted. Video recordings inside the embassy show Glenn Greenwald and his husband, David Miranda, meeting Julian Assange, and British rapper M.I.A. having lunch with the founder of WikiLeaks as his cat sits on the table. Julian Assange Helpless There seems to be little doubt that this massive espionage operation was conducted on behalf of the United States. Evidence of this comes from the declarations of former employees, from internal emails, and from the kind of information collected.

In the seven years he spent confined in the embassy before he was arrested last April, Julian Assange tried to defend himself from such pervasive surveillance as best he could. One of the stratagems he used was a white noise device to disrupt interceptions. To some extent, such device worked. To avoid the disruption caused by his white noise device, UC Global had to install a hidden microphone in the fire extinguisher right next to the place where Assange would sit inside the meeting room. It was nearly impossible to spot such a microphone, glued with a magnet inside the base of the fire extinguisher. This was not the only disruption the white noise device created: according to UC Global workers, the Americans had placed laser microphones outside the embassy to intercept the conversations inside, capturing the vibrations in the window's glass. But the small vibrations produced by the white noise device interfered with this process, disrupting the interceptions, and the boss of UC Global ultimately intervened to solve this problem through a technical solution provided by the Americans themselves.

The videos and audio recordings accessed by the Repubblica reveal the extreme violations of privacy that Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks journalists, lawyers, doctors and reporters were subjected to inside the embassy, and represent a shocking case study of the impossibility of protecting journalistic sources and materials in such a hostile environment. This espionage operation is particularly shocking if we consider that Assange was protected by asylum, and if we consider that the information gathered will be used by the United States to support his extradition and put him in prison for the crimes for which he is currently charged and for which he risks 175 years in prison: the publication of secret US government documents revealing war crimes and torture, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Guantanamo.

The Spanish lawyer Aitor Martinez, one of the lawyers in Julian Assange's legal team filmed by UC Global, tells Repubblica: "Over the years Mr. Assange and his defense team held legal meetings inside the embassy. Those meetings were protected by the lawyer-client relationship and the fundamental right to defense. However we can see those meetings were spied on, according to the videos published by different media. Under these conditions, it is clear that extradition must be denied. We hope that British justice understands the scope of what has happened and denies extradition as soon as possible".

"La Repubblica si batterà sempre in difesa della libertà di informazione, per i suoi lettori e per tutti coloro che hanno a cuore i principi della democrazia e della convivenza civile"

Carlo Verdelli  ABBONATI A REPUBBLICA
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